What About Your Conscience?
Do you remember the Disney movie classic, Pinocchio? In that movie Jiminy Cricket served as Pinocchio’s conscience. He was always around to remind Pinocchio about the right thing to do. Sometimes Pinocchio ignored him, sometimes he listened to him; but Jiminy Cricket stayed by Pinocchio’s side no matter what. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone like that in today’s business climate—someone outside ourselves who knows exactly what to do and is willing to stick by us no matter what, keeping us on the high road to success?
An under utilized and valued concept that needs to be strongly emphasized is the concept of conscience. Where does conscience fit into one’s decision-making and what are one’s obligations to conscience in discerning what’s right or wrong?
Conscience, according to Thomas Aquinas, one of the most profound thinkers/philosophers/ theologians of the Middle ages, defines conscience as “the application of knowledge to activity (Summa Theologiae,I-II). He goes on to explain: “Conscience is the act of determining that which I ought to do or not do, or that I was right or wrong in performing that action.” This issue here is what is the process by which one determines whether one is using conscience appropriately? Aquinas reflects that in order to use conscience effectively, because Aquinas believed that one obliged to always follow one’s conscience,
one must insure that conscience is well informed and objectively educated. It is then and only then one morally obligated to act on it. There lies the crux of decision-making! Making a decision on the solely on emotions, subjective reasoning or rationalization is not an ethical way to make decisions. Time and effort must go into being well informed and being able to understand opposing viewpoints, in order to more objectively make the best decision. Therefore, making an ethical choice cannot be done in the “spur of the moment”. This decision calls for introspection, information and application.
Your values, your code of ethics and the internalization of the same are the basis for the development of conscience. It is important that you internalized in advance what your values are, keeping in mind, much will be dependent on the situation. Not that that each situation will determine the ethics needed to make the decision, but rather it’s the challenge of applying one’s values and code of ethics differently depending on the variables of the situation. The process is not one of finding values to fit the situation, but rather how do my values relate to each particular situation?
Once you’ve created your own personal code of conduct, the next step is to internalize these ethics and values, making them a natural part of your decision-making process. Ethics are what you do even when nobody is looking. Therefore, ethics have to come from the inside out, not from the outside in. When you internalize your code—when principles like honesty, decency, and looking out for the other guy form the basis of your daily decisions and actions—then you can make the tough choices with more confidence.
Because I’m not going to kid you: even when you have a clear code of ethics to guide you, the tough choices aren’t any less difficult; they’re just clearer. Often the “right” course is simply the one that will cause less damage in the long term.
The ethical choice may mean you refuse to support your boss in fudging figures on a report, for example. In the short term this might cause a rift between you and your boss, perhaps even make you both look bad to company management. But in the long term your credibility (as well as your boss’s integrity) will be less damaged by telling the truth than by lying and possibly getting caught.
Once we have internalized our personal code of conduct, then comes the hard part: we must choose to abide by those ethics and values in each situation that arises. Remember, ethics are honesty not just in principle but in action. We each have to choose to take the ethical action in every context, and ideally our code of conduct is always an integral part of that decision-making process.
This doesn’t mean you need to be rigid in your interpretation of your ethics and values. You can stay true to the essence of your code of conduct while being flexible in its application. The Constitution of the United States is a great example of this principle in action. The Constitution is the essence of our law, but how it is applied or amended can vary depending upon circumstances and requirements. In the same way, we each need to abide by the essence of our own code of conduct (and if our business has a mission statement or code of its own, to abide by that). At the same time, we must be open to the fact that our values are not absolute and may need, at times, to be reevaluated and adapted.
We must choose well which path we follow on the high road to success. We need to analyze our values and ethics, apply them in a consistent yet compassionate manner, and make sure our workplace values and personal values are not in conflict. We must make sure our values are not situational—that is, we have one set of rules for our work and another for our kids or our relationships. That kind of “moral schizophrenia” can only make our choices more difficult, not less. Like the Constitution, if our code of conduct is something we believe in then we should hold onto it, apply it even-handedly, change it slowly, after much deliberation, and recognize that it will ultimately define who we are because it controls what we do.